Alaska ports hope to keep fish tax: ‘We can’t get answers’ says Stutes

One fisheries item that appears to have escaped Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto pen so far is his desire to divert local fish taxes from coastal communities into state coffers.

Dunleavy’s initial budget in February aimed to repeal the sharing of fisheries business and landing taxes that towns and boroughs split 50/50 with the state. Instead, all of the tax revenues would go to the state’s general fund – a loss of $28 million in FY 2020 to fishing communities.

“There is a recognition that these are viewed as shared resources, and they should be shared by Alaskans,” press secretary Matt Shuckerow said at the time. “So that’s kind of what this proposal does. It takes shared resources and shares them with all Alaskans, not just some select communities.”

The tax split remains in place, and the dollars are still destined for fishing towns, said Rep. Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak), who also represents Cordova, Yakutat and several smaller towns.
“It’s general fund revenue and that has been appropriated to the appropriate communities,” Stutes said in a phone interview. “What we can tell right now is it slipped by unscathed because it appears he did not veto that revenue to the communities that generate the dollars. So, it looks like we’re good to go there.”

What’s not so good is the nearly $1 million cut to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s commercial fisheries budget.

Stutes and Sen. Gary Stevens (R-Kodiak) worry the shortfall could result in lost harvests.
“It’s always short-sighted when you cut Fish and Game. It’s just really crucial that we have the personnel we need to manage our resources and to make sure they continue to be there when we need them,” Stevens told KMXT in Kodiak.

Stutes, who chairs the House fisheries committee, said it does not make sense to cut state moneymakers.

“In the long run, that creates revenue for the state because it allows all these different fisheries to stay open longer,” she said, adding that lost oversight because of budget cuts will result in more conservative management.

“If they do not have the personnel to do the appropriate salmon counts, they’re going to manage very conservatively. And that means less openings or they’ll close the season earlier,” Stutes said. “Those are dollars that the state’s not going to get by the governor vetoing those funds to Fish and Game. It just doesn’t make sense to me under any conditions.”

All the amendments the Alaska Legislature added back into the original ADF&G budget were vetoed, including a $280,000 cut to special areas management, which include 12 game refuges, 17 critical habitat areas and three wildlife sanctuaries. Two director-level positions and associated funding from the Habitat and Subsistence Research Divisions will be moved to the Office of Management and Budget and no longer be associated with ADF&G-related duties.

Effects of the budget cuts were not readily available, and all questions are referred to a new gov.pressoffice@alaska.gov address. The questions may be directed back to appropriate staff, but “they want everything to be through that address,” said one ADF&G employee.

“Welcome to our world,” said Stutes. “As a Legislature, we can’t get answers. We can’t speak to department heads. We get no response. We are required to go through the legislative liaison. I have never seen such a lack of communication between any department or between the Legislature and the executive branch.”

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Laine Welch is an independent Kodiak, Alaska-based fisheries journalist. Click here to send her an email.

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